Chapter 51: Ice and Fyre
“Ka is in Lord Dux’s old quarters,” said Ro-eh-na, “I did not see Ash or Lady Hazel, but the balcony doors were open, and they provide Ka with a clear view of the Ferndell Road. There’s a large crowd below the terrace, not only in the courtyard but extending into the streets of the city.”
“So they’ve taken our bait?” Said El-on-ah, “I confess I had doubted whether Lord Ka would believe you’d give up so easily.”
“What about Ophites and Djinn?” Said Rose.
“I saw only two Afreet Officers, both on guard at the door of the chamber.” Said Ro-eh-na. “However, the piazza is packed full of people, mainly Blood Ophites, though there are some radically deformed individuals who, I assume, are Lord Ka’s high councillors. Ascendants who have been through the assimilation process. Everyone appears to be waiting for something. There is quite an atmosphere out there, people are chanting and cheering. The air sizzles like a geyser about to pop.”
“Evidently Ka is putting on a bit of a show for his admirers.” Thoughtfully, Rose fingered the phial of potion that hung around her neck. “and who am I to disappoint?”
“The sun is high already,” said El-on-ah, “it must be almost noon so it won’t be long before Lee and Auriel appear on the Ferndale road. Perhaps that’s what they are waiting for - the arrival of Rose of the Whyte…”
“As I said,” said Rose, ”I’ve never been one to disappoint. That said, if we are to get through the piazza without being spotted, I need new robes,”
Rose took a set of Blood robes and slippers from the cupboard, quickly pulling them on and raising the black hood over her distinctive silver-white hair.
“What are you doing in here?” Baroque had entered the room without their noticing. “Lord Ka is to address us from his balcony. You should be in the piazza with everyone else, you have no business here. Turn around so I can see your faces.”
Rose recognised his voice immediately. He could ruin everything. She reacted in an instant.
“Interficio!” Rose cast the descent spell without a second thought, having long decided on this course of action were they ever to be challenged. The stakes were far too high to risk everything by using a simple binding spell.
Baroque’s shocked expression altered to one of horror and disbelief as he was thrust backwards and lifted high into the dome of the basilica by the flow of white energy that surged from Rose’s ring.
Rose looked on as Baroque’s writhing, twisting form rapidly faded, vanishing in a flicker of light, as his robes drifted to the floor like a shower of autumn leaves.
Rose turned to the others, the look on Ro-eh-na’s face needed little explanation.
“Now is not the time for leniency,” said Rose, feeling her eyes dip to the floor as a flood of guilt swept through her, “mercy at this stage would be foolhardy. We cannot afford to jeopardise the future of our people.”
“She’s right,” El-on-ah said, as she collected Baroque’s discarded garments from the floor. She folded them neatly, before laying them down beside a pile of new Ascendant robes. “We’d better not leave any evidence of our presence here. We cannot afford to be discovered before completing our task.” She frowned at the pukis who was, as usual, getting under her feet. “Puk - go small.”
Puk blinked twice, the creature’s whisker’s twitching as his form became fluid, transforming into a field mouse. El-on-ah picked up the tiny ball of fur and slipped him into her pocket.
“I understand why you did it,” said Ro-eh-na, grasping Rose’s hand tightly, “I may even have done the same thing. I was just surprised that it was you who cast the spell, I thought El-on-ah…”
“I did not react quickly enough,” said El-on-ah, “though, unlike you, I am not surprised that Rose was able to do what I could not. That kind of instantly accessible magic is exactly what you would expect from a truly great Wizard.”
Rose pretended to ignore El-on-ah’s surprising plaudit, though, in truth, she found the Blood Ascendant’s praise reassuring. If Rose were to achieve any success in rallying the people of the Afterlands; Twocast, Gold, Mud, Blood or Ophite, and bring them together to forge a new future, then she would need to win over people like El-on-ah.
The sound of cheering voices and stamping feet, emanating from the courtyard, intensified.
“We need to go now,” said Rose.
Gathering their robes about their bodies, the three ‘Bloods’, hurried from the Basilica and began pushing their way through the crowded courtyard. Rose arranged her hood so that it covered most of her face and kept her violet eyes fixed resolutely on the ground.
The crowd seemed to be composed mainly of native Blood Ophites, though there were a small number of Golds and, as Rose glanced up intermittently, to get her bearings, she noticed a large number of Blood Ascendants lining the central pathway. Their red-scaled, reptilian, complexions evidence to their willing participation in Ka’s reverse assimilation process.
Rose glanced up towards the balcony, in the vain hope that Ash would be standing with Lord Ka, but the terrace was empty. Where did he go?
Her ears throbbed with every heartbeat as a feeling of unease swept through Rose’s body. Why isn’t he watching the road… Has he uncovered our deception?
The horde shuffled and muttered. Rose consoled herself with the fact that his followers, at least, still appeared to be awaiting the presence of their leader.
The restless mob’s constant preoccupation with the Oratory balcony allowed Rose and the others to push through unnoticed. Then, the balcony doors were flung open, and the crowd surged forward, knocking Rose sideways. An arm reached out to steady her, instinctively Rose glanced up, her eyes meeting the slanted black eyes of a Blood Ophite. The Blood’s neutral expression altered as his eyes flashed with recognition.
“Oblitus,” Quietly, Rose mumbled the incantation as she swept her ringed hand in front of the Bloods face, erasing his memory as effortlessly as the sun melts snow. A soft glow emerged from the crystal in Rose’s ring. Instantly narrowing, the curling wisp of vapour vanished into the Blood’s two piercing black eyes, now gazing through Rose as if she were made of glass.
El-on-ah and Ro-eh-na, sandwiching Rose between them, quickly ushered her to the edge of the throng, as, once more, they surged forward. Shouts and cheers rang out as Lord Ka, and his entourage stepped out onto the balcony.
Recklessly, Rose lifted her gaze towards the Oratory terrace and there, standing beside Lord Ka, his head held high as he looked out onto the jeering mob, was Ash.
“Is that Hazel…” said Ro-eh-na, “surely she can’t have willingly chosen to do that to herself?”
Rose barely registered Ro-eh-na’s words. She could think only of Ash, humiliated, hands bound as he was paraded before the crowd like a hunting trophy. Ka yanked hard on the heavy metal chain attached to the thick collar fastened around Ash’s neck. Rose winced as the edges of the collar bit deep into his skin, and his robe stained scarlet.
“Ultimately, everyone decides their own fate,” Rose felt her jaw tighten, “now it’s time we chose ours.”
The three ascendants moved quickly towards the entrance of the Oratory. Ka began a speech to the converted, his words following Rose and the others as they slipped passed the two giant Fyre hawk statues at the gates of the Oratory.
“Bloods, Ophites, and patrons of the Unification’s New Order. Today is a day of retribution that will go down as one of the defining times in our history. Today we abolish the cruel legacies of the Whyte Wizards and their cronies forever more. I bring to you Lord Ash, the Mud Ascendant from the novice cell of Rose of the Whyte.” Ka paused, as the sound of the crowd’s cheers smothered his words. “Beyond these walls, Rose the Whyte and one other make their way here to surrender as I speak.”
Ka lifted a bony finger towards the Ferndell valley where two shadowy figures could be seen approaching in the distance.
“I urge you to make way for Lady Rose when she approaches. One day, you will speak of this moment to your children, and with great pride, you will say - I was there…”
After slipping unseen through the gates of the Oratory, Rose was surprised to find the corridors and Atrium were also deserted. She recalled the first time she had entered this building, her body tense with excitement and fear. Today she felt little emotion, only purpose. Gone was the naive girl who had, more than once, questioned the role destiny had bequeathed to her. Rose had aged a thousand years since then.
Footsteps echoed from the Refectory corridor, and signalling for the others to follow, Rose slipped into the cloistered stairway leading to Dux’s quarters.
Anticipating resistance, Rose was surprised when the door was unguarded. Such complacency.
El-on-ah arched her brow in question.
“They are really expecting us to walk right in through the city gates?” Rose arched a delicate brow, her eyes flashing with humour, “it’s such a shame to disappoint them.”
Taking the phial of potion from around her neck Rose carefully removed its stopper. It looks so innocuous… She hesitated.
Drink it… Urged the voices within her.
Ro-eh-na and El-on-ah watched in confusion as Rose struggled with the decision.
Drink it, Rose. Drink the potion… The Four pressed her on, their tone growing increasingly urgent.
“Are you okay?” Ro-eh-na rested a hand on her shoulder, “Rose?”
“Shut up!” Rose closed her eyes and rubbed her throbbing forehead. “Let me think will you…”
It is your destiny. You cannot relent. Now drink it, Rose…
“I’m sorry Rose,” said Ro-eh-na. “I didn’t mean…”
You are not alone. We are with you Rose, we will always be with you, drink it, my child.
“I wasn’t addressing you Ro-eh-na,” Rose sighed.
Ignoring the puzzled look on their faces, Rose raised the potion bottle in a mock toast, before lifting it to her lips.
“to you Ruzha, Ogin, Sevti, Eldwyn and to destiny…”
The sour tasting, ice cold, liquid burned Rose’s throat as she tipped back her head and swallowed it down. Instantly her skull seemed to explode in a shower of needles as the flesh inside her mouth grew numb, her tongue throbbing painfully as she attempted to speak.
“When we get inside, there can be no hesitation,” Rose struggled to speak, her tongue felt rigid and frozen, burning her brain like a mouthful of ice. “I will need to focus entirely on Lord Ka, so I will rely on the two of you to deal with whatever else we meet.”
“Of course we are ready,” said Ro-eh-na, shooting a concerned look towards El-on-ah, “but are you? You seem confused, distracted - are you sure you are able to do this Rose?”
“I’m certain, it’s just that,” Rose swallowed hard, “the effects of drinking the potion are rather similar to those of eating a large spoonful of Rhodium Sorbet.”
Cautiously, Rose turned the handle of the heavy oak door and eased it open. As the three of them edged their way into the room, they could hear the sound of the frenzied, cheering crowd through the open balcony doors.
Rose glanced nervously around the familiar room. It appeared so different from the last time she had visited Lord Dux here. The Prima Magister’s priceless collection of antique magical, scientific paraphernalia and literature had gone, and there wasn’t a hint of the scent of sweet pastry anywhere. Strangely, this hit Rose the hardest, it was as if Dux’s very existence had been expunged. The room no longer welcomed her with the familiar scents of parchment, candied fruit and candle wax. Now there was only an unpleasant, sulphurous aroma. It was the fragrance of dark magic, poisonous brews, and potions.
The only remaining remnant of Lord Dux’s presence was his large wooden staff, which Ka had mounted on the wall, like a trophy. Rose recognised it immediately. She recalled Lord Dux explaining proudly that it was one of a kind - it’s hilt expertly whittled and painstakingly shaped into the three fyre hawks of Aurum, back to back, each one facing out from the centre.
Stealthily, Rose motioned for the others to follow as she approached the open doors that lead out onto the large balcony.
She hesitated as she caught sight of Ash and the grotesquely deformed figure of Lady Hazel, standing together on the left of the balcony. Hazel’s attention seemed focussed on the crowd, but Ash saw her instantly, his eyes meeting hers with a look of sad resignation. He knew I would come for him…
His eyes widened as he gave an almost imperceivable shake of his head. He was trying to warn her of Ka’s presence, but Rose already realised Ka was standing on the other end of the terrace. She could hear him speaking now.
“Beyond the city wall,” Ka’s tone was triumphant, his voice bellowed out into the square below. “Rose the Whyte approaches the city. You should make way for her now, forge a path through which she may pass amongst you. Today, we take back these lands of ours, today the reign of the elite is over. Our time has finally come.”
The crowd whooped, cheering boisterously. Rose heard the sound of jostling as Ka’s loyal disciples obediently obeyed the instructions of their lord and master.
If Ka is preparing a path through the crowd, then Auriel must be close to the Ferndell road junction. Soon, she will drop out of sight. I’ve no choice, I must act now…
As Rose, flanked by El-on-ah and Ro-eh-na, stepped silently out onto the balcony, the expression of dismay on Ash’s face pushed Roses heart into her throat.
Unhooking the clasp of the hooded black cloak she was wearing, Rose lifted it from her shoulders, letting it drop to the floor. Immediately, the crowd fell into shocked silence.
“There is no need for them to make a path for me when, as you can see…” Rose drew her right hand out towards Lord Ka, her potens ring pulsating with energy, “I am already here.”
Ka acted with the speed of a lightening bolt, grabbing Ash, Ka pulled the young Ascendant’s body tightly to his own, using Ash as a shield. In Ka’s right hand was a thin crystal flask containing a purple liquid. Fractionation venom.
“Remove your ring, Rose of the Whyte,” Ka lifted the bottle to his mouth, biting down hard and breaking the wax seal from the bottle stopper. “There is enough venom in this bottle to obliterate Lord Ash in a second and everyone else here seconds after that. Think carefully Rose, even if you do possess the means to cast Lord Eldwyn’s spell, are you confident you can act fast enough to save Lord Ash or indeed, anyone else here? If you recall, Lord Eldwyn was not even capable of preventing his own death.”
“Do as he says Rose,” Hazel’s voice shook, “don’t be a fool, you can’t win this. The only way you’ll save any of us is if you sacrifice yourself.”
Rose met Ash’s soulful emerald eyes as she felt her own prickle. Unable to blink away the tears, she let them spill down her cheeks.
Ash gave her a slow, wistful, smile. His eyes capturing hers as, with a reassuring nod, he mouthed the words of their pledge to each other - ’Our time will come…’
Silence engulfed Rose. Time slowed as if each millisecond existed for eternity. She heard herself call out the incantatio command. The sound she made was feral, like a she-wolf howling over the body of her dead cub.
It was as someone had reached in, and ripped her heart from her chest, only to cast her away like a hollow doll. A glistening tempest of ice leapt from her ring and swept towards Ka. Rose was flung backwards by the force of the spell. Her body slammed into the wall of the terrace, the power of the impact ripping the air from her lungs. In the same instant, Ka tossed the open flask into the air, releasing its contents.
“confractio!” Ka screamed the terrifying command, his voice echoing around the courtyard as the fractionation venom evaporated, forming a fiery purple haze that leapt up all around them.
Rose looked up from the floor of the terrace and remembered a dream. It had been so long ago, she had forgotten until now. She had lived through this horror before, on that first day at the oratory while Lord Dux patiently watched over her as she slept, only feet away from where she lay now. Fyre leapt up all around her, and up ahead, a red scaled monster hurtled through the flames, intent on her destruction.
A blood-chilling scream jolted Rose from her reverie. The flames had engulfed Ash in an instant. Rose, tormented by guilt, her face lined by tracks of purple hued tears was unable to turn away. Helplessly, she watched as the fyre devoured the person she loved. She heard herself calling out Ash’s name, pitifully, again and again, as she felt the pain of every torturous scream as if it were her own.
The bright bolt of magical energy Rose had conjured shot forward, piercing Ka’s toxic purple haze and the two made contact. Ice met fyre in one enormous explosion, tossing their bodies into the air like leaves in a storm.
A thunderous crack filled the air as the sky turned black as all warmth was sucked from the land. The window of the world had opened onto an apocalyptic winter like none before.
Ice began to form on every surface. The golden walls of the city of Aureus took on a glistening silver hue. The trees froze, small branches and leaves splintered and fell to the ground, chiming like broken crystal.
“My hands! my hands!” Hazel got to her feet unsteadily, trembling with fear she held her hands towards Rose, “What’s happening to me?”
Beneath Hazel’s reptilian skin, the veins of her hands were hardening as her blood began to freeze. The frost spread upwards, her veins morphing into silver-white serpents wrapping themselves about her as little by little, Hazel’s body transformed into ice.
“How apt,” El-on-ah said, picking herself up off the floor, and brushing the frost from her robe. “The Ice Queen actually becomes an Ice Queen.”
For a while, the sudden, eerie silence was broken only by the sound of snapping and tinkling, as objects splintered, unable to stand the rapid freeze produced by the incantatio. Then came a single whimper, followed by the wailing and crying of the people in the courtyard below.
Rose could not see the crowd, a thick icy mist had formed all around.
“Where is Ro-eh-na,” said El-on-ah, “and more importantly where is Lord Ka?”
“No!” The extent of Ka’s horror was perfectly denoted by the tone of that one word.
He had been thrown into the recess at the corner of the balcony. Haltingly, Ka emerged from the shadow, attempting to move towards Rose, but he could manage only a few steps before he became trapped - frozen to the floor by the creeping ice serpent rapidly making its way to his heart.
Ka struggled to lift his ringed hand, “Interfi…”
He could not finish the charm, Ka had become an effigy once more, a figure framed in ice.
A white owl swooped down out of the mist, its form glowing as it transfigured. Ro-eh-na materialised beside Rose.
“Is he as fragile as he looks?” Ro-eh-na said, “It’s like he’s made of glass.”
“The spell turns fyre to ice,” said Rose, “Djinn are formed from fyre as, to some extent, so is every Ascendent who went through the assimilation process, including Hazel. Magic has no allegiances.”
Idly, Ro-eh-na circled around what remained of the man who had ravaged her lands, murdered her people and melted her flesh.
“Wait, one moment,” said El-on-ah, disappearing back into the building. She reappeared a moment later carrying Lord Dux’s wooden staff.
“here…” El-on-ah tossed Dux’s staff to Ro-eh-na.
Ro-eh-na caught it effortlessly in her good hand. Her brow furrowed as she shot El-on-ah a quizzical look. Then, grasping El-on-ah’s meaning, Ro-eh-na’s eyes lit with the spark of purpose.
Taking the staff in both hands she slid her good hand over the smooth wood, feeling its weight and balance before glancing sheepishly towards Rose.
Rose shrugged, “Be my guest.”
Ro-eh-na brought the weapon down hard across Ka’s shoulders.
The three of them watched silently, and without expression, as Lord Ka’s body shattered into a million pieces.